Stone Reader

Stone Reader

Reading in Reverse

The only movie made about a book you can’t read, or, How to Read a Film as Text and Back Again

“Read” Mercer Schuchardt

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author who wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” —Holden Caulfield

Mark Moskowitz is a tool of the Man. Or at least, that was my first blush of cynicism when I learned that a producer of political ad spots had made a documentary film called Stone Reader and was coming to Marymount Manhattan College to talk about it after his film screened for free to an audience of Upper East Siders at Manhattan’s Crown Twin Theater. My hand shot up to get the first question blurted out before the audience fell in love with this stool pigeon’s propaganda: “Do you even vote?” I sneered.

He answered, surprisingly, “Yes.” And then Mr Moskowitz proceeded to further deflate my jaded cynicism with a thorough, thoughtful, and complex answer about what he’s learned while making thirty-second ad spots, both positive and negative, and how the real essence of democracy, love it or hate it under its current corporate control, still is and always will be voter turnout. Oh shit . . .

But wait, I’m telling this story in reverse. The first thing we actually did was watch the film. Students and faculty and the requisite number of curious New Yorkers (an odd mix of bibliophiles and cinephiles, both emboldened by the rare “free entrance” at the theater door) assembled early on the morning of February 13. There, huddled together in the 9 a.m. darkness of a theater whose corn had yet to start popping, we stretched out for what seemed like it must be, by virtue of its academic necessity, a really boring movie. I mean, come on, a film about reading? Why not just shoot a syringe full of Novocain in each eyeball right now and call it a day? Some teachers even called out roll . . . in a movie theater. Things were not looking good.

Then it started. Here’s the story: a sentimental middle-aged man looks for a book’s author. Pretty exciting, huh? You wouldn’t believe.

Moskowitz at home

A middle-aged sentimentalist looks for a book.

It’s a documentary, so, like a good murder mystery, you have to go into it with a willingness to suspend your disbelief that the author doesn’t already know who the murderer is, even while the story’s conceit rests on the illusion that the author is searching for him all along. Thus, as a necessity, Moskowitz also tells his story in reverse. Five minutes into it I leaned over to my friend in the theater and said, “If this charade carries on any longer, I’m going outside to the payphone to get this guy’s number myself.”

But before I can leave, the film starts to discuss other books. Catch-22 gets mentioned. Mario Puzo, Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway, and Call It Sleep. And then . . .

The text in question at the heart of the film is titled The Stones of Summer, a novel written by one Dow Mossman, whom you’ve never heard of. You’ve never heard of him for the same reason that Moskowitz’s quest becomes valuable. Mossman, despite having been an incredibly gifted writer, has only written one book. And despite that one book being a fantastic novel that received rave reviews in the New York Times and other legit venues of highbrow literary culture, the author never produced another scrap of prose.

Moskowitz apparently bought the book as a teenager but only got around to reading it twenty-five years later. Struck by the absurdity of the author’s disappearance, he then goes on a quest to find him. If you like J. D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, John Kennedy Toole, or any other reclusive, mysterious, or potentially suicidal author, you’ll love this story.

Who doesn’t like J. D. Salinger that’s read this far? Why are you still reading?

But this question—Why are you still reading?—is really the only question that the film succeeds in answering. For it is in the quest, in Moskowitz’s discussions with friends, readers, editors, mentors, as well as teachers and colleagues of Mossman—including even the book jacket’s designer and the backflap photographer—that the viewer comes to understand the secret knowledge that binds together the universal brotherhood of readers. (I say “brotherhood” because the film is mysteriously silent on female readers and writers; the filmmaker’s wife is only shown from the neck down).

It is a secret that unfolds in the film slowly, quietly, the way all good books do, until suddenly, a few pages after the fact, you realize you know something you didn’t previously know—and as a result you put it down, for a minute or a day, to reconsider all that you thought you previously knew. I can’t spoil it for you, just as I can’t spoil the answer to the question of what happened to the elusive Dow Mossman. Metaphilm may spoil films for you out of professional obligation, but this is about a book, and that’s a mystery of a higher order.

The original publisher speaks fatuously.

The overt purpose of Stone Reader is simply to get Mossman’s novel back in print (and go ahead, just try to find it online). But the real effect, after watching this mesmerizing text of a film, is to make you go out and pick up all those classics on your shelf that you skipped, skimmed, or read the Cliff’s Notes to while in high school. Turns out your teachers knew a thing or two, despite making way too big a deal over The Old Man and the Sea.

Mark Moskowitz is a man with a tool. Several tools, actually. Here’s a guy with a love of reading, a camera, and decades of storytelling experience in the film medium. That his ultimate achievement may come to be an increase in the reading level of American culture (and not, say, the level of voter turnout) is only ironic if you believe that the future is supposed to look more like tomorrow than yesterday. It isn’t.

The real irony is that Stone Reader is the only movie ever made that is based on a book you can’t read. It is Adaptation in reverse. Or better, it is the exception that proves the rule: Stone Reader is the one film in which the movie really is better than the book—but only as long as the book is unavailable.

Go see this film. The more people see the movie, the more likely a publisher will reprint the book, and the better chance you’ll have of reading the novel—to find out how the story really ends. In the ideal universe of five-years-from-now, The Stones of Summer is supposed to be a book you read based on a film you once saw. But we’re telling the story in reverse, and the happiness or sadness of the ending is entirely in your hands. Literally.

Further Viewing:

See the film Stone Reader currently in NYC at Film Forum. Read more about other venues, the movie, and the maker at Interested publishers may contact Mr. Moskowitz directly through his site, or indirectly through Metaphilm. We guarantee an audience.

posted by editor ::: March 11, 2003 ::: philms :::